The centerpiece of Carnegie Hall’s 2023–2024 season is the Fall of the Weimar Republic festival, a powerful exploration of one of the most complex and consequential chapters in modern human history: Germany’s Weimar Republic of 1919–1933. Even with a progressive new constitution and the adoption of democracy, Germany emerged from World War I into a period characterized by overwhelming economic hardship, social inequality and unrest, political polarization, and extremism. These challenges paved the way for the opportunistic rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, ultimately leading to the outbreak of World War II and the horrific devastation and genocide that followed. Yet despite the turmoil and upheaval of the Weimar period, the arts and culture thrived as artists sought bold and innovative avenues for creative expression and sociopolitical commentary.
Peter Jelavich, author of Berlin Cabaret, highlights aspects of an art form that responded to the novelties and opportunities—but also the threats and dangers—of the era.
The first thing you must do, dear reader, is forget everything you think you know about Weimar-era cabaret. It definitely was not the type of performance depicted in the Broadway (1966) and Hollywood (1972) versions of the eponymous musical, which had more to do with the fantasies of those years than the stages of 1920s Berlin.
Indeed, Lotte Lenya—who played Fräulein Schneider in the Broadway production—did not see any resemblance of the Kit Kat Club to anything she had witnessed 50 years earlier. Christopher Isherwood (whose stories inspired Cabaret) had been to such venues, but recalled that they were phony tourist traps—in his words, “dens of pseudo-vice catering to heterosexual tourists. Here screaming boys in drag and monocle, Eton-cropped girls in dinner jackets play-acted the high jinks of Sodom and Gomorrah."
Forget, too, the film The Blue Angel (1930): Though the songs performed by Marlene Dietrich were penned by Friedrich Hollaender— one of the outstanding cabaret composers of the 1920s—the venue in which she appeared was a lowbrow vaudeville hall in a small coastal town and not cosmopolitan Berlin. And forget, too, Kurt Weill: He never composed songs explicitly for cabarets, rather for opera and musical stages.
So what was “Kabarett”—the real thing—in 1920s Berlin? Its roots lie in Paris of the 1880s, the birthplace of cabarets artistiques. The artistic element is important, since such places stood out from mass-entertainment variety shows. Ideally, they performed in small venues, seating a few dozen patrons around drink-laden tables (smoking was also allowed). What they offered was a smorgasbord of short, unconnected numbers: primarily songs, but also dances, monologues, dialogues, sketches, and brief skits held together at best by the banter of a master of ceremonies. Thematically, they indulged in satire and parody of the political currents, commercial fashions, and sexual trends of the day. They were often sophisticated, but never decadent.
Such cabarets were founded in Berlin and Munich in 1901, but they were held in check by the preemptive censorship of all staged works in Imperial Germany. Those strictures fell with the monarchy in November 1918, and the genre was able to thrive in the new Republic.
Two of the most important cabarets of the early 1920s were managed by women, who also were their featured performers. Rosa Valetti founded Cabaret Megalomania, which was at times highly political. Her signature song was “The Red Melody,” composed by Hollaender and scripted by Kurt Tucholsky, a biting political commentator of the age. Sung by the mother of a fallen soldier, it admonished Erich Ludendorff—generalissimo, de facto dictator of Germany during the war, and vicious anti-Semite—not to try to make a comeback. Valetti also performed a work penned by Germany’s foremost Dadaist poet, Walter Mehring: “Simultaneous Berlin” evoked with its paratactic verse the political, social, and economic mayhem of the postwar metropolis.
Mehring was also the in-house lyricist for the other cabaret hosted by a woman, Trude Hesterberg’s Wild Stage. That venue saw the only appearance of Bertolt Brecht in a Berlin cabaret, when he sang “Ballad of the Dead Soldier”—a grotesque tale of how the German army, short on manpower, dug up a fallen warrior and sent him back to the front.
Hyperinflation forced Valetti and Hesterberg to quit their ventures after a couple years. But after the currency stabilized in 1924, cabaret flourished. The most successful was Kurt Robitschek’s Cabaret of Comedians. Author Marcellus Schiffer and composer Mischa Spoliansky created “cabaret revues,” where the songs were tenuously held together by something like a plot line (or at least a common theme); Hollaender, too, excelled in that new genre. Cabarets and cabaret revues slyly mocked (but also indirectly promoted) the new sexual mores of the day.
The boisterous Claire Waldoff, who belted out tunes in Berlin argot, played both male and female characters from the city’s lower classes. Songs with titles like “Maskulinum/Femininum” by Schiffer and Spoliansky likewise dealt with gender fluidity. The duo also penned “When the Special Girlfriend,” sung by Dietrich and Margo Lion as they portrayed two women on a shopping trip, both dissatisfied with their husbands and clearly taken with each other. The lighthearted song became something of an unofficial anthem for lesbians. But on a more serious note, Spoliansky (under the pseudonym Arno Billing) penned the music to “The Lavender Song”; with its march-like rhythm, it was (and remains) a militant call for gay rights.
Politics, too, was treated on cabaret stages in a lighthearted—sometimes too lighthearted—manner. As early as 1924, a year after Hitler’s failed “Beer Hall Putsch,” the premiere of the Cabaret of Comedians included the skit “Quo vadis?,” featuring Hitler as a wannabe Nero. He continued to be the butt of jokes until the end of the Republic.
Antisemitic attitudes were also parodied, most famously in “Blame the Jews for Everything.” Penned by Hollaender and sung to the tune of the habanera from Bizet’s Carmen, it unmasked the ridiculousness of Jew-hatred by accusing them of everything from bad weather to leaky bathtubs and busy telephone lines (but also for the fact that Heinrich Heine was not a bad poet and Albert Einstein rather smart).
After Hitler came to power in 1933, neither he nor antisemitism were laughing matters. Jewish and leftist cabaret performers, authors, and composers had to flee. The lucky ones traveled far afield to Tel Aviv, London, New York, and Los Angeles, where some of them tried to found (rather unsuccessfully) cabarets in exile. Many stayed closer to home and resided in Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, and Paris. But by 1940, as the Wehrmacht overran Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland, and France, those who could not escape were soon interned in concentration camps.
In Dachau and Sachsenhausen, they performed in secret; but two camps permitted (or demanded) full-fledged shows. Westerbork was the transit camp for Dutch and German Jews in Holland. When its stage-struck commander realized that he had many of Berlin’s most famous cabaret artists in his clutches, he had them mount revues—until they were shipped off to extermination in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Theresienstadt was likewise a transit station for many famous German, Austrian, and Czech Jews, who were occasionally shown off to observers from neutral countries and the International Red Cross to “prove” that the infamous Nazi camps had tolerable conditions. The performing artists and composers among the prisoners were encouraged to present plays, classical music, and cabaret—before they, too, were sent to Auschwitz.
As we listen to their works, we cherish their memory; but we must also ensure that what they experienced will never happen again.
Embark on a thought-provoking journey throughout Carnegie Hall’s Fall of the Weimar Republic festival, including classical music written during the Weimar era, plus cabaret and jazz popularized in Germany after World
War I. Across New York City and online, partner organizations also explore developments in film, literature, visual art, theatre, architecture, and more Learn more at carnegiehall.org/weimar.